Book Review: All the Devils Are Here

This review was written for and first published on Bookmunch.

I have read several books recently that intertwine the facts, lore and local gossip about a place with an author’s personal interest and experience. The Stone Tide by Gareth E. Rees explored Hastings; Hollow Shores provided a fictionalised exploration of Kent. All the Devils Are Here is also focused on Kent although the ripples spread further afield – including to London, Europe and the Middle East. The book contains a series of essays that meander around and muse about the licentious and often nefarious escapades of one time residents from such towns as Margate, Rochester, Broadstairs and Deal. The ne’er-do-wells featured are as likely to be from the decadent wealthy classes as from what may be more commonly regarded as the criminal. First published in 2002 the book has recently been rereleased. The essay exploring Fascism seems particularly prescient.

The Prelude sets the scene introducing Kent as the first commercial bathing resort to offer its eighteenth century, genteel visitors from the city clean air and curative sea bathing. By the end of the century the working classes were also descending in large numbers which led William Cowper to remark:

“Margate tho’ full of Company, was generally fill’d with such Company, as People who were Nice in the choice of their Company, were rather fearfull of keeping Company with.”

Certain English, it seems, have long wished to isolate themselves from those they regard as different from them in any way. And worrisome company can exist in the most unassuming of settings – today’s blue plaques will sometimes celebrate this.

Many names feature: T.S Eliot; Charles Dickens; John Buchan; Richard Dadd (an insane but acclaimed artist who murdered his father); Lord Curzon (last Viceroy of India under Queen Victoria, who approved his daughter’s marriage to Sir Oswald Mosley); Arthur Tester (a stage Nazi and father of Audrey Hepburn). There are more – drunks, cranks, chancers and the egoistic – many remembered fondly for the creative work they left. When the artist behaves badly can this discredit the art is, perhaps, a pertinent question.

Within the essays attempts to monetise the famous at the expense of modern tourists are mocked, these sanitised versions compared to the facts gleaned from the author’s research. Each subject has a questionable side which often inspired a following. Many characters are interlinked, and not just by place.

There is domestic discord, grisly murder, sexual abuse of children, decadent lifestyles, and attempts at obfuscation. The final essay explores the world of homosexual pickups, rent boys and the murder of prostitutes. There is little edifying in these expositions but they provide insight into the blinkered thinking of those who believe they can have whatever they wish for, at whatever cost to their victims – and they often get away with it. Families may have tried to sweep such histories under the carpet but our intrepid author hunts his quarry through a detailed bibliography, personal interviews and visits to locations. He brings the reader back to the time and place where the deeds occurred shining his light into dark corners tourist boards may prefer were left hidden.

Any Cop?: The essays wander in directions that can appear random at times, exploring a wide variety of anecdotes and rumours, unpicking speculations. This is an intriguing collection of essays that offers much to mull as they uncover the lesser known activities of many recognisable names. It is sobering to reflect that, when it comes to human activity, little seems to have changed.

 

Jackie Law

Advertisements

Book Review: Know Your Place

Know Your Place is a collection of twenty-three essays written by working class writers about their experiences of being working class in Britain today. The writers’ families identify with a variety of colours and cultures, which add to the way they are perceived by themselves and others. Most of the writers appear to have attained a university education, and to have moved away from the environment in which they were raised. The essays explore the effort required to push against perceptions, the cost of trying to realise their potential in spaces dominated by those whose background is one of greater privilege.

The collection opens with The First Galleries I Knew Were Black Homes, in which Abondance Matanda talks of art, accessibility, and who decides what is valued. It argues that the supposed elite of the art world should not assume that the unrepresented are culturally deprived.

“Being a black working class woman, I exist on the peripheries, in the shadows of British society. It’s scarily likely that you might not see me or my experiences portrayed at all, let alone wholesomely in our visual culture or art history.”

The author’s peers do, however, know about art and heritage. The problem, as in many of the issues raised in the following essays, is breaking through the barriers erected by traditional gatekeepers who do not always see a need to facilitate change.

In The Pleasure Button: Low Income Food Inequality, Laura Waddell discusses the joy experienced when consuming fatty, salty food, which is accessible where healthier entertainments are beyond limited budgets. Those who can afford to drive to a large supermarket and stock up on fresh fruit and vegetables will often shake their heads at the dietary choices of those living in poverty, ignoring the causes. This reaction, to blame the poor for their situation, is a recurring theme.

Several of the authors discuss the positives of growing up working class, which includes the comfort of belonging and a feeling of community. In The Death of a Pub, Dominic Grace recalls a drinking establishment he frequented in south Leeds, where generations of the same families would get together after a hard days graft. It may have been a rough place but these were blokes enjoying friendly banter over a well earned pint at the end of a long day. Unfortunately, to me, it was reminiscent of the attitude of the wealthy to their London Clubs which ban women as this would change member’s freedom to talk and act as they choose. The working man’s pub appeared intimidating to those who did not belong to that socioeconomic group.

Many of the essay authors’ parents worked hard to enable their offspring to progress through education. Those who made it to better schools write of the challenges this brings. Just as work colleagues may not appreciate the difficulties presented by a lack of parental contacts or financial backup, so classmates did not understand why house size and quantity of possessions could cause embarrassment. There are also casual preconceptions, such as the assumption that a package holiday to Benidorm is somehow less admirable than a bespoke journey through a remote corner of Asia.

There are discussions on benefits, sexuality, visibility and the culture of blame. There is a correlation between poverty and mental health as well as the obvious physical effects of poor nutrition. In Where There’s Shit, There’s Gold, Ben Gwalchmai looks at rural poverty and the jobs he took as a child living in Wales. The Housework Issue (The Other One) asks why certain jobs are looked down upon, especially those that provide benefit to many.

“We, working class women, and all of us, have been sold a lie. The fabrication that if we work hard, do the right thing – whatever that means – that we’ll be ok and get the good stuff. We’ll get the status, and a good sense of pride, and if we’re not ok we deserve our poverty; it’s our own fault because we’re not working hard enough.

The inconvenient truth is that a badly paid and low status job with no prospects like cleaning keeps you poor. Hard work does not lift people out of poverty or issue status, not if you scrub toilets for a living anyway.”

In Reclaiming the Vulgar, Kath McKay asks who defines good taste, and who cares. Value judgements have been attached to many things, including how people furnish their homes, dress and speak. This results in sizeable portions of the population being silenced, their voices somehow deemed unworthy. In The Wrong Frequency, Kate Fox explores the judgements made about those who speak with regional accents. Class differences are reinforced by perceived regional stereotypes.

Many of the essays deal with belonging and the disconnects successful social mobility can introduce. In What Colour is a Chameleon, Rym Kechacha discusses the necessity of talking and acting differently in order to gain acceptance.

“I have heard too many people frown when they hear me speak, too many people assume I haven’t read that book they’re talking about […] I know that no one is fooled about my origins, and I don’t even know if I want them to be.”

The final essay, You’re Not Working Class, is by the editor of the collection, Nathan Connelly. In it he asks what the term even means. There are those who try to delegitimise others who identify as working class. They are thereby complicit in attempting to silence someone who does not conform to their expectations.

To be better understood it is necessary to be heard and these essays provide a platform from which marginalised writers may speak for themselves. From the quality of the arguments presented it is clear that they are more than capable of elucidating cogent and balanced opinions. The stories they tell provide a lesson a wider audience would undoubtedly benefit from learning. This is a recommended read.

Book Review: Nasty Women

nastywomen

“Take a moment and ask yourself who are the real Nasty Women? Those of us who struggle to empower all women or those of us who empower men that ensure we remain second class citizens?”

Nasty Women is a collection of essays written by contemporary women about their everyday experiences of living in the twenty-first century western world. The contributors come from a variety of cultures, their points of view percipient in reflecting the particular challenges they have encountered due to their: gender, appearance, physical ability, creed.

Each account details the daily aggressions the authors have faced from family, friends and strangers. These are both verbal and physical, sometimes well intentioned but always damaging. Women of colour have their hair touched as though an animal in a petting zoo. Curvy women have their bottoms pinched, their waists grasped. Fat women are berated for eating, advised of a new diet plan, told how good they looked that time they lost some weight. Muslim women are required to defend themselves by those whose perceptions of their beliefs are certain yet skewed.

Many of the authors ponder the cost to their mental well-being of the expectations in which they were raised. Women are required to be good and this equates to being considered attractive, compliant and subservient, especially by men. White male privilege and those who uphold it, fearful perhaps at a perceived threat to the benefits they take as their due, requires that women abide by their definition of the ‘natural order’. Arguments for change are granted validity only if men suffer too.

Much of the harassment detailed is blamed on the survivor for the way they act or look. They are told that if they would only be good then they would be safe, with little thought by the advisers and accusers as to what they would be safe from. Why it is considered acceptable that women are required to live their lives under constant threat of attack?

The accounts by women who suffer different experiences to mine were enlightening. By listening and responding appropriately to such first hand experiences, conduct may be adjusted. Those that gave voice to ordeals I have suffered offered comfort. So ingrained is the demand that women cope and remain silent, it is rare to find discussion let alone acknowledgement of how widespread and damaging these accepted behaviours are.

It is not just men who perpetuate the patriarchy and silence dissent. In her essay, Choices, Rowan C. Clarke relates how her mother instilled in her the belief that she was abnormal because she did not appear concerned enough about losing weight, being pretty and desirable to boys.

“I hated myself. My mother has always been very opinionated and everybody’s actions were judged through her particular morality lens. It was hard work to please my mother. She would get so enraged when I didn’t act the way she wanted me to. […] Why couldn’t I just be normal and make her proud?”

In the age of Trump and his ilk it seems more important than ever to recognise and share experiences and to call out the damage that attempting to silence women will cause. If speaking out for tolerance and equality makes me nasty, then I wear that badge with pride.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, 404 Ink.

Book Review: Inventing the Enemy

Inventing-the-Enemy

‘Inventing the Enemy’ by Umberto Eco is an eclectic collection of fourteen essays with an Introduction by this master writer and thinker. Source material comes from lectures and articles written over a ten year period covering topics as diverse as ancient astronomy, medical ethics and Wikileaks; with explorations of responses to literature, narrative devices, conflict and global exploration in between.

As is typical of the author’s work these essays cannot be rushed; they demand and deserve proper consideration. Most are easily readable but intense, written to provoke thought as much as to entertain.

I found two of the essays bizarre to read (‘Living by Proverbs’ and ‘Ulysses: That’s All We Needed…’) although that is, of course, the point of them. Much more satisfying were ‘The Poetics of Excess’ and ‘Imaginary Astronomies’ which had me so fired up that I was obliged to discuss them at length with those members of my family who understand my passion for understanding the way people think and react to consensus views of literature and science.

For those who are concerned or have an interest in the modern phenomena of increasing state surveillance I would recommend ‘Thoughts on Wikileaks’. This short article veers into the realms of the absurd at times but, in so doing, raises points that are worthy of further consideration. Will an inability to fully contain and control digital data force states to retain or pass on their secrets via another medium?

The book provides gentle exercise for the brain that will leave the reader feeling sated by his exertions. Read and pass on to a like minded friend that you may enjoy together some lively discussions on topics you may not yet realise are of mutual, if passing, interest.